Return to the title of Emperor

The Emperor of Japan

By Jeff Taliaferro

The Emperor of Japan is the world's only reigning emperor. At first glance, this usage seems odd in three respects.

First, and most obviously, Japan does not have an empire. Indeed, for most its history, the boundaries of Japan have not extended beyond the home islands: Kyushu, Honshu, Hokkaido and Okinawa. Japan did acquire an empire, beginning with the annexation of the Ryu Kyu Islands in 1875 and culminating in conquest of Southeast Asia in 1940-1942. At the end of World War II, however, Japan lost its colonies.  Second, while Japan has an "emperor" it is not formally an "empire." Between 1889 and 1946, the long form of the country's name was the "Empire of Japan." During the American occupation, the Diet  (parliament) voted to drop the long form. The country is simply Japan (Nihon or Nippon) –the land of the rising sun.

Third, the word "emperor" is not an accurate description of the historical and constitutional role of the Japanese monarch. Unlike the Chinese and Mongol emperors, the Russian tsars, and the Byzantine emperors, the Japanese emperors have rarely exercised political power or commanded armies in the field. Instead, they have mainly performed sacerdotal functions and served as the source of legitimacy for the country's real rulers. As the direct descendant of the sun goddess, Amaterasu Omikani, and thus a manifestation of divinity on earth (kami), the emperor functioned as the chief priest of the indigenous religion, Shintô. After the introduction of Buddhism to Japan and the "merger" of Buddhist and Shintô practice in the eighth century A.D., the emperor continued to function as a shaman king. In the seventh century, political power passed to Fujiwara, on the four aristocratic families in the capital city Kyoto (794-1185). Later political power passed from the ancient court aristocracy (kuge) to the emerging military aristocracy (daimyo) in the countryside. A succession of warrior dynasties –the Taira, the Minamoto, the Ashikaga, and finally the Tokugawa –actually governed the country almost continually from 1185 to 1867. The heads of these families held the title of Shôgun ("great barbarian subduing generalissimo").

Even after the abolition of the Tokugawa shogunate and so-called restoration of imperial rule in 1867, the Japanese emperor had little independent authority. The 1889 Meiji Constitution vested nominally vested supreme executive, legislative, and military command authority in the throne. In reality, the emperor presided over a complex web of state institutions –the cabinet, the Privy Council, the army and navy general staffs, and the Imperial Household Ministry –and extra-constitutional bodies –the genrô (the council of elder statesmen) –with little ability to either make policy or veto policies undertaken in his name. The present Japanese Constitution (in effect from May 17, 1947) defines the emperor as "the symbol of the State and the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people in who resides sovereign power."

The Japanese word for their hereditary monarch is Tennô (literally "heavenly sovereign"). The word, borrowed from Chinese, dates from the seventh century A.D. The other common term is Tenshi (literally "son of Heaven"). Both words are gender neutral. Japan has had six female monarchs, the last of whom, Go-Sakuramachi, reigned from 1763 to 1771. The term Mikado ("honorable gate" or the Sublime Porte), popularized in the west by the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta of that name, is archaic. Other titles for the emperor are Dairi (Court), Gôshô (Palace); Heika (Steps to the Throne); Aramikami (Incarnate Divinity); and Akitsukame (Manifest Destiny).

The use of the terms "emperor," "imperial" and "imperial family" in reference to the Japanese monarch and his family are artifacts of the general title inflation of the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Until the early nineteenth century, most Westerners were largely unaware that Tokugawa Japan was a diarchy. The Shôgun exercised de-facto control over the country from his capital at Edo (present day Tokyo), while the Tennô performed sacerdotal functions in Kyoto. Indeed, in 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry presented the bakufu officials with a letter from the president of the United States to the "king of Japan" (i.e., the Shôgun). When the true state of affairs became more widely known, Westerners began to refer to the shôgun as the "tycoon" –a corruption of the Japanese word taikun (great lord).
 
After the Meiji Restoration (1868), the Satsuma-Choshu oligarchs adopted the English word "emperor" (Kaiser in German and l'Empereur in French) as the official translation for Tennô. They did so largely to put the "restored" Japanese monarch on an equally footing with sovereigns of the great powers –the Tsar of Russia, the Emperor of the French (1857-1871), the Emperor of Austria, the German Emperor (from 1871), and the Queen-Empress of India (from 1877) – and the emperors of China, Mexico and Brazil. Moreover, the Satsuma-Chosou oligarchs sought to use "restored" emperor to both unify the country and bolster Japan's standing relative to the Western powers.
 

The Imperial Family

The translation of Tennô as "emperor" led to the adoption of imperial rank and styles for other members of the dynasty. The Koshitsu –the collective term for the monarch's immediate relatives –translated as the imperial family or imperial household (imperiale Familie in German or impériale famille in French).

Historically, there were several types of imperial consort –Kogô, Chugu, Nyôgo and others. These represent different ancient court ranks and the assignment of these titles tended to be rather arbitrary. The principal consort of the Emperor Meiji, the former Itsuko Haruko (1857-1914), received the highest rank, Kogô, on the day of her marriage. In their effort emulate Western monarchies the Meiji oligarchs translated her title as "empress." Emperor Meiji granted the principal consort of his father Emperor Komei, the former Kujo Atsuko (1834-1897), the rank of Kotaigô. Previously, she had been Nyôgo or a third-ranking imperial consort. The highest ranks for former imperial consorts – Kotaigô (literally, the emperor's mother) and Tai Kotaigô (literally, the emperor's grandmother) –became the "empress dowager" and the "grand empress dowager" in translation, respectively. The 1889 Imperial Household Law eliminated the other consort ranks.

The Kôtashi –the heir apparent to the throne –became the crown prince (Kronprinz in German or Le prince couronné in French). For centuries, the Imperial Court made a distinction between two categories of princes: the shinnô and the ô. (Princesses are correspondingly naishinnô and nyoô). The two differed in terms of closeness to the reigning emperor in descent. An emperor's sons, grandsons, and great grandsons in the male line were shinnô, as were the heads of imperial family's major cadet branches (the Fushimi, the Arisugawa, the Katsura, and the Kan'in). These princes are immediate successors to the throne. More remote male line descendants are ô (and nyoô). The Japanese government and Western diplomats translated both ranks as "prince" or "imperial prince."

The designation "imperial prince" became necessary to distinguish royal relations from holders of the highest non-royal rank of the new Japanese peerage, kôshaku. Both Westerners and Japanese translated this title, which corresponded to a British duke, as "prince." For example, Prince (or Duke) Saionji Kinomichi and Prince (or Duke) Konoe Fumimaro, both representatives of senior lines of the Fujiwara, held the highest non-royal ranks in the peerage; they were not members of the imperial family. Conversely, Fushimi no miya Sadanaru Shinnô was a member of the imperial family. His names and titles translated as Prince Fushimi Sadanaru or the Imperial Prince Fushimi Sadanaru.

Translation of Foreign Minister Shigemitsu's credentials

HIROHITO,
By the Grace of Heaven, Emperor of Japan, seated on the Throne occupied by the same Dynasty changeless through ages eternal,
To all who these Presents shall come, Greeting!
          We do hereby authorize Shigemitsu Mamoru, Zyosanmi, First Class of the Imperial Order of the Rising Sun to attach his signature by command and in behalf of ourselves and Our Government unto the Instrument of Surrender, which is required by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers to be signed.
          In witness whereof, we have hereunto set our signature and caused the Great Seal of the Empire to be affixed.
          Given at Our Palace in Tokyo, this first day of the ninth month of the twentieth year of Showa, being the two thousand six hundred and fifth year from the Accession of the Emperor Jimmu.
Seal of the Empire
Signed: HIROHITO
Countersigned: Naruhiko ô
Prime Minister
 

Translation of General Umezu's credentials

HIROHITO,
 By the Grace of Heaven, Emperor of Japan, seated on the Throne occupied by the same Dynasty changeless through ages eternal,
          To all who these Presents shall come, Greeting!
          We do hereby authorize Umezu Yoshijiro, Zyosanmi, First Class of the Imperial Order of the Rising Sun to attach his signature by command and in behalf of ourselves and Our Government unto the Instrument of Surrender, which is required by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers to be signed.
          In witness whereof, we have hereunto set our signature and caused the Great Seal of the Empire to be affixed.
          Given at Our Palace in Tokyo, this first day of the ninth month of the twentieth year of Showa, being the two thousand six hundred and fifth year from the Accession of the Emperor Jimmu.
Seal of the Empire
Signed: HIROHITO
Countersigned:
Umezu Yoshijiro, Chief of the General Staff of the Imperial Japanese Army
 Toyoda Soemu, Chief of the General Staff of the Imperial Japanese Navy
 


Royalty Main Page | Search Heraldica | Heraldic Glossary | Contact

François Velde

Last Modified: Jan 07, 2001